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This study adds to the recent scholarship on Progressivism in practice—fine-grained, place-based studies of reform at the local level—but focuses closely on the relationships among reformers, industry, and the law that an earlier generation of historians studied at the national level and outlined in broad brushstrokes. This study also builds upon the creditor-centered work of historians such as Mark H. Haller and John V. Alviti, but moves beyond their reliance upon distinctions and categories, such as those separating profit making credit providers from philanthropic credit providers, which were less important to borrowers than they have been for historians. In focusing primarily on the lived experience of poor borrowers, this article imports into the study of household credit relationships an approach mapped out by several historians of social welfare policy and institutions, who have attempted to reorient the institution-centered historiography of social welfare to give greater weight to the perspectives of welfare recipients. This study attempts to correct a similar imbalance in the historiography of household credit relationships.

The value of viewing the history of credit through the lived experiences of working-class households is not solely in documenting the human dignity and agency of poor borrowers, although this is certainly one of the goals of this study. Rather, by looking at credit relationships from the borrowers point of view, a number of different institutions, groups, and policies that borrowers experienced as simultaneous and overlapping, but that historians have usually studied separately from one another, are brought into the same analytic frame. Thus, in contrast to prior work, this study treats charitable and for-profit lenders to the poor together as participants in the same market for working-class credit. The debtorsstories presented here show how impoverished families organized their financial lives, made ends meet, and employed borrowing as a survival strategy.


Copyright © 2012 American Society for Legal History;

Publication Citation

30 L. & Hist. Rev. 1053-1098 (2012)